Water Shortages Threaten Food Future in the Arab Middle East*

Water Shortages Threaten Food Future in the Arab Middle East*

Long after the political uprisings in the Middle East have subsided, many underlying challenges that are not now in the news will remain. Prominent among these are rapid population growth, spreading water shortages, and ever growing food insecurity.

In some countries, grain production is now falling as aquifers are depleted. After the Arab oil-export embargo of the 1970s, the Saudis realized that since they were heavily dependent on imported grain, they were vulnerable to a grain counter-embargo. Using oil-drilling technology, they tapped into an aquifer far below the desert to produce irrigated wheat. In a matter of years, Saudi Arabia was self-sufficient in wheat, its principal food staple.

But after more than 20 years of wheat self-sufficiency, the Saudis announced in January 2008 that this aquifer was largely depleted and they would be phasing out wheat production. Between 2007 and 2010, the wheat harvest of nearly 3 million tons dropped by more than two thirds. At this rate the Saudis likely will harvest their last wheat crop in 2012 and then be totally dependent on imported grain to feed their Canada-sized population of nearly 30 million people.

The unusually rapid phaseout of wheat farming in Saudi Arabia is due to two factors. First, in this arid country there is little farming without irrigation. Second, irrigation there depends almost entirely on a fossil aquifer, which, unlike most aquifers, does not recharge naturally from rainfall. And the desalted sea water Saudi Arabia uses to supply its cities is far too costly for irrigation use, even for the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia’s growing food insecurity has even led it to buy or lease land in several other countries, including two of the world’s hungriest, Ethiopia and Sudan. In effect, the Saudis are planning to produce food for themselves with the land and water resources of other countries to augment their fast growing imports.

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